Review: Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture

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Review: Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture By Richard Hofrichter, ed. Richard Hofrichter (Ed.). Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 356 pp. ISBN 0-262-58182-5 (paper). US$25.00

In the introduction to this collection of seventeen essays, Hofrichter claims that our toxic culture goes beyond the traditional understanding that toxic relates to materials and processes to encompass virtually all aspects of our daily lives. That includes physical environments; ecosystems; and economic, social and spiritual community health. Moreover, he argues that a toxic culture exists because of "social arrangements that encourage and excuse the deterioration of the environment and human health" (p. 1). The themes that echo most loudly in this volume are that corporate America is responsible for creating a toxic culture, that toxicology is suspect at best, and that risk assessment, despite being science-based, is biased, perverted by corporate influence, and not considerate of risk views in non-mainstream America.

Aside from the introductory chapter by the editor, the book is organized into three parts. Part One, "Challenging Current Perspectives," consists of seven essays that cover diverse ground such as cancer, worker health, brownfields, community as place, Native American experience, risk assessment, and economic reductionism. In "The Social Production of Cancer: A Walk Upstream" Sandra Steingraber writes of her own experience with bladder cancer and the lack of attention paid by researchers to potential environmental causes of a variety of cancers. She concludes with some "guiding principles for reducing toxics." One of the principles she espouses is that of principle of least toxic alternative. It's not a bad idea. However, in order to determine the least toxic version of any chemical, some sort of risk assessment process is required. Other essays in the same volume argue that risk assessment is a science to be dismissed. Corporate America is on the hook in Charles Levenstein and John Wooding's essay "Deconstructing Standards, Reconstructing Worker Health." They astutely assert, "occupational disease and injury are 'unintended consequences' of technological choices driven by financial imperative." (p. 39). They examine the history of worker protection standards and the clout of corporate America. They also provide some ideas on how to ameliorate corporate influence. These include the building of organizations that represent worker interests, changing attitudes and values of professionals in occupational safety fields who, the authors claim, are "largely dominated by corporate interests" (p. 53), and allowing communities to set their own standards for controlling polluting industries.

Community involvement is central to the essay by William Shutkin and Rafael Mares' "Brownfields and the Redevelopment of Communities: Linking Health, Economy and Justice." They examine the principles of brownfields, including its regulatory history and intent and provide suggestions for an improved brownfields process that not only considers economics but social capital as well. They use two neighborhoods of Boston as examples of brownfields that work. Mindy and Robert Fullilove's essay "Place Matters" is perhaps the most abstract of all essays appearing in the book. They talk about place as a concept to which all should aspire. This place would ideally be the result of changing individual's precepts about where they live. And the way that is achieved, they claim, would be to "think globally, act locally." How one Indian community responded to a hazardous waste site and their sense of place is the subject of Alice Tarbell and Mary Arquette's essay "Akwesanse: A Native American Community's Resistance to Cultural and Environmental Damage." The authors argue that well-meaning regulatory agencies try to resolve environmental issues with mandates and directives when they should amend problems by considering social and cultural values and experience. …